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PA: Unintended Consequences of Relying on Your Lawyer's Advice

Collas v. Garnick, 425 Pa. Super. 8; 624 A.2d 117 (1993)

Underlying PA Tort Action

Student Contributor: Colleen Gaedcke

Facts: The plaintiff employed the defendant to represent her in an automobile tort action. The defendant reached a settlement with the plaintiff for $245,000. The plaintiffs were asked to sign a general release, which discharged the driver and all other parties who might be liable for the damages. The plaintiff asked the defendant whether the release would have any effect on her desire to sue the manufacturer of the vehicle. The defendant responded that it would not. In reliance on his advice she signed the release. She subsequently filed an action against the manufacturer, which the court dismissed stating that the action was barred by the release. The plaintiff then filed this action against the defendant for legal malpractice.

Issue: “If a lawyer negligently advises a client regarding the effect of a release and the client, in reliance on the lawyer’s advice, signs a release which unintentionally has the effect of barring an action contemplated by the client, is the lawyer immune from liability because the release was executed as part of the settlement of a prior, separate action?”

Ruling: No.

1) A lawyer has a duty to know how a proposed settlement will affect his client…conducting  legal research sufficient to allow the client to make an informed decision.

2) Here,

the fact that the written agreement was prepared as part of the settlement of their prior action was incidental; it did not relieve counsel of an obligation to exercise care in determining the effect of the agreement which his clients were being asked to sign…counsel was required to exercise the same degree of care as he or she would have exercised in advising a client about a complex agreement not a part of the settlement of a legal action. 

Lesson: An attorney is not expected to be perfect.  But, where the attorney gives erroneous advice that falls below standards that the client has a right to expect form their lawyer they will be held liable for malpractice.

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Posted in: Litigation, Pennsylvania, Standard of Care, Torts/Personal Injury